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Joan McAlpine’s stridency shows disdain for alternative views Stephen Daisley

Comment: Stephen Daisley looks at the SNP MSP’s controversial column.

Joan McAlpine MSP
Daily Record

A conspiracy operates before our eyes, its devious puppet masters conniving in plain sight.

Their nefarious aim is nothing short of the destruction of parliamentary democracy in Scotland.

If news of these machinations shocks you, you will not be alone.

We are indebted to Joan McAlpine for alerting us to the dastardly plot. The SNP MSP and Daily Record columnist - she must be staying to ensure The Vow is kept - used her column in Wednesday's paper to warn readers about a cabal working against Scotland's parliament.

Their fiendish scheme... wait for it... is to secure more powers for Scottish local authorities.

It's not exactly the Cambridge Five, is it?

Nonetheless, Ms McAlpine objects to the attempt to hand some powers held by the Scottish Parliament to councils, which would allow more decisions to be taken locally and in line with the specific needs of each area instead of being imposed from Edinburgh. Or, to put it another way: Decisions on West Dunbartonshire's future are best taken by those who care the most about West Dunbartonshire, the people who live and work there.

However, Ms McAlpine sees more sinister motives at work:

"The anti-SNP parties want to 'devolve power from Holyrood' and had this written into the Smith Commission. They do this to bring down our parliament - because it is popular and the vast majority of Scots want it to have greater powers."

Localism of one form or another commands support across the political spectrum, from the Tories through to the Greens. The idea of Murdo Fraser and Patrick Harvie colluding to bring down Scottish democracy via bin collection policy might sound like a particularly duff episode of Homeland but the prospect worries Ms McAlpine all the same.

Needless to say, the blame lies largely with the perfidious Labour Party. Murphy himself, assisted by that most disloyal traitor the thane of Cosla, has begun a dismal conflict.

"Labour governments from 1997 to 2007," she writes, "allowed councils to hike bills by 60%. That's not the local democracy communities are crying out for."

The wrong kind of democracy. Even those of us who admire Ms McAlpine's flair as a writer could never have predicted she would one day re-write Bertolt Brecht: "Would it not be easier/ In that case for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?"

Ultimately, the plotters' aim is not to enhance democracy: "They want to channel money back to their cronies. That's not empowerment. It's empire building."

We should perhaps have guessed where things were going from the opening sentence of the column: "Who do you trust more, your local council or the Scottish Parliament?" During the referendum, Ms McAlpine's mentor Alex Salmond told us it was "Team Scotland" versus "Team Westminster". Now it's Team Holyrood against the rest of the country.

This is a perfect illustration of why we need a re-examination of Scotland's political institutions to improve on the flaws of the system put in place by devolution. The failure to disperse power widely enough - in councils or a second chamber of parliament - leaves Scotland lacking the kind of checks and balances that curb executive power and provide for responsible, pluralistic government.

That is a particular challenge when faced with a politician who appears to question the legitimacy of any opposition. Ms McAlpine condemns those who seek a more effective balance of powers between central and local government as "anti-SNP" -- she previously branded these parties "anti-Scottish"; I'm not sure she sees a distinction - and in doing so indicates she has no desire to participate in a substantive debate.

It is true, as she highlights, that more people turn out to vote in Scottish Parliament elections than in council elections. Has the MSP considered that this might be because local authorities are so politically anaemic it hardly seems worth the effort? Councils can certainly govern incompetently and ineffectively but so too can central governments. That is no reason for depriving the latter of powers. If anything it is cause to devolve more powers to local government to raise the stakes and improve the quality of policy and policymakers.

Perhaps none of this should surprise us. The SNP has a liberal streak a centimetre long. Whether it's prosecuting people for singing unpalatable songs at football matches or assigning state guardians for every child or trying to kill off the ancient safeguard of corroboration, the Nationalists are often found wanting on individual and civil liberties. Ms McAlpine is a symbol of that strain of authoritarianism. Why, one might ask in McAlpinean terms, does she not trust Scots with freedom and responsibility? Why are our political betters at Holyrood the only people who can make smart decisions?

The SNP should learn the lessons of the Labour period of Scottish politics, where a similar enthusiasm for centralisation inhibited local democracy and gave rise to many of the problems that still beset councils. If Labour has undergone a change in heart, the SNP should welcome it: A Labour Party that believes in wider distribution of power would have trouble squaring this new principle with support for the Union as it is currently structured.

None of these nuances is reflected in Ms McAlpine's column. That's because she is the Ann Coulter of Scottish Nationalism, firing wild invective at opponents and casually questioning the patriotism of those who disagree with her. She writes with her fists and loves word-bombs like "toffs", "bosses", and "cronies". I once wrote that she speaks "like a suddenly radicalised Catherine Cookson character" but that fails to capture her stridency and disdain for alternative points of view. In fact, she appears to inhabit her own world of political reasoning.

It's a magical place, Joanland, where everything is black and white and everyone either good (SNP) or evil (everyone else). There are no complex problems, only Labour lies and Unionist deceptions, and such challenges as exist all have one easy answer: independence. In Joanland, no one is unduly burdened by doubt. It is the land that nuance forgot.

Nevertheless, the calls for Ms McAlpine to apologise are misjudged, as is the demand that Nicola Sturgeon distance herself from the comments - the latter coming from the Scottish Greens, who are allowed to speak for themselves again now the referendum is over. It's easy politics but not good politics. There is still far too much mediocrity on the Holyrood benches and so when a colourful character comes along - one who thinks outside the box, or thinks at all - we should be wary of jumping on their every outré pronouncement. At least with Ms McAlpine there's a mind at work, even if it's a closed one.

On Wednesday, Scottish Labour MP Frank Roy tweeted:

I only saw the post because 45ers were tweeting that Roy was "gloating" about North Sea job losses. That's fairly predictable (cybernats gonna cybernat) but as I read and re-read the tweet, it did seem a tad glib. I was going to tweet as much but then I stopped. Frank Roy is a former Ravenscraig steelworker who was amongst those made redundant when the factory was closed in 1992. He knows about job losses; I'm just some pontificating commentator.

In an age when the political class is collectively charged with inauthenticity and most MPs accused of never having held a "real job", we need more people like him in politics and we should be encouraging these politicians in particular to use social media to connect directly with voters.

So the problem with Ms McAlpine's column isn't that she's an elected representative; it's that her jeremiad is illogical and objectionable in its contempt for democracy. She's a talented polemicist and knows how to write tabloid better than some London red-top columnists who have become household names on much less ability. (In an earlier journalistic incarnation, she was also responsible for the much-missed Sunday Times Ecosse section, the most readable and entertaining newspaper supplement in Scotland for the bulk of its 15 years.) She could be a great asset to an SNP eager to win over what remains of Labour Scotland; no doubt she sees that as her purpose in writing for the Record.

But her impassioned rhetoric is undercut by an internal contradiction: She's a romantic radical in a party of the managerial centre. That's why her tone must always be strident, her tenor outraged, and her ideological ambitions frustrated. It makes her the sort of belligerent idealist who condemns more democracy as an attack on democracy.

Stephen Daisley is STV's digital political correspondent. You can contact him at stephen.daisley@stv.tv.

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